No more songs in the calle

The Cambridge Companion to Modern Spanish Culture
April 7, 2000

There are still readers to whom the words culture and cultural studies are so vague as to suggest the catalogue of catalogues of Borges's Library of Babel. What we have in The Cambridge Companion to Modern Spanish Culture is less exotic and rather more mundane: an abecedarial grab bag that offers an overflow of information to the general student while sustaining very little real discussion of what the study of culture is supposed to do.

The growing power of cultural studies in the academy today is the result of the retreat from high literature, the over-emphasis on the ideological nature of texts, the increase in diversity and in gender studies, and the popularity of courses on the media and film. It is a trump card that university presses now play with increasing frequency as they turn down monographs on literary themes, or, in the case of a press with the prestige and tradition of Oxford, discontinue the publication of books of original poetry while still making room in their catalogue for such a carelessly written and obtuse book as Cultural Studies and the New Humanities (1998).

David T. Gies, the editor of Modern Spanish Culture , uses culture in the restricted sense of referring to the general body of the arts and to the intellectual side of civilisation, into which elements of "low or popular culture" will be woven. Gender, folklore and mass culture are more properly, he says, subjects of a different book.

The result is a series of competent essays, some of them lively (Chris A. Perriam on poetry from 1975 to 1996), enlightening (Teresa M. Vilarós's cultural map of Catalonia) and perceptive (Philip Silver on the Basque country), that taken together imply a fundamental uncertainty of audience.

Three chapters titled "History", "Politics" and "Culture" from 1875-1996 will afford no surprises to anyone who has kept up with Spain via El Pa!s, has read Preston or Payne, Jose Ortega y Gasset or Miguel de Unamuno, Inman Fox (one of the contributors) or Raymond Carr. Historians and political scientists will find these chapters light going and contributing little that is new. The beginning student of culture will be confronted with a mass of detail.

Stephanie Sieburth in the opening essay, "What does it mean to study modern Spanish culture?", champions the need to analyse and include relationships among high, middle-brow and low culture, which should lead to such questions as "What does it mean that Valle-Inclán wrote Luces de Bohemia at the height of the popularity of the cupl é?" "How did the rise of tourism affect the content of Juan Goytisolo's novels?" To force literature away from its context, as the "new critics" tried to do, has always been naive, and, therefore, these questions make excellent sense. But they are unanswered, and the 22 papers that follow make little effort to emulate this opening essay. For instance, what does it mean when we read in Philip Deacon's study on the media that intellectuals such as Ortega, Unamuno, Azorín and Pío Baroja filled the columns of newspapers, or that The Revolt of the Masses , one of the century's most important books, was first serialised in the newspaper El Sol ?

Vilarós's "A cultural mapping of Catalonia" shows how after the massive rebirth of Catalan, assisted by the decision to show the television series Dallas in Catalan and the success of the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona, Catalan national identity has become a cultural commodity. A language spoken by 6 million people, it now has to confront multicultural and multilingual configurations in the fourth language in the world, Spanish, spoken by 300 million people.

Santos Juliá, discussing that threesome history, politics and culture (1975-96), credits the implantation of a capitalist market economy with the peaceful transition from General Franco to democracy. He notes changes in the speech patterns of the middle and working classes (without saying what they are) and concludes that although the infrastructure of Spain has been modernised, it is unable to rid itself of a mixture of cliques and family interest that runs deep in the fabric of the political culture of many Latin countries - none of which is news for readers of Benito Pérez Galdós, Clarín (Leopoldo Alas) or Émilia Pardo Bazán.

Jo Labanyi examines the narrative in culture (1975-96), records the boom in publishing in Spain and the international reach of authors such as Javier Marías, a bestseller in Germany, and Arturo Pérez-Reverte, recipient of the largest advance ever paid a Spanish author in the United States. On the whole, the novel in this period is, in her words, characterised by a contorted introversion. Is this a cultural judgement?

Music and cinema acquire extra dimensions when placed alongside literature, history and politics. Roger D. Tinnell reports that the information age has put paid to the Spanish ballad tradition that was once, along with that of England, Scotland and Wales, the richest in Europe. Children no longer play games on the streets, their shrill voices singing ancient songs; they watch television instead. Flamenco is being modified, although we are not told how.

In this book on culture, too little is said about the zarzuela (traditional Spanish operetta), a natural genre for looking at a crossroads of tastes, politics and history. Democracy has made possible the extraordinary development of the Spanish cinema. The Basque director Imanol Uribe will find no one to contradict his enthusiasm when he says that the Spanish cinema is living in its greatest period.

Unlike many on cultural studies, this book is not hectoring and is fairly free of jargon. What is most sorely missed, however, is a texture of togetherness. Most of these essays do not talk to each other, but exist as monads.

There is a chronology of major events that begins with 1825-50, when musical theatre, including the zarzuela , developed, and concludes with 1997, the year of Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and the reopening of the Opera House in Madrid. The glossary has a few misleading terms: to define casticismo as "puritan traditionalism" is to invite all the wrong connotations for the Anglo reader, and "social gathering" for tertulia could hardly be flatter.

Howard Young is professor of Romance languages, Pomona College, California, United States.

The Cambridge Companion to Modern Spanish Culture

Editor - David T. Gies
ISBN - 0 521 57408 0 and 429 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £37.50 and £13.95
Pages - 3

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